Bohumil Hrabal and Miroslav Holub - two legends of twentieth century Czech writing

Bernie Higgins

Hello and a very warm welcome to another edition of Czech Books. Over the last weeks you'll have got used in this programme to hearing the voice of Bernie Higgins. Today Bernie's on the other side of the microphone. She joins me in the studio to talk about some of her favourite Czech books.

You are originally from Newcastle in the north of England, but you've been settled here in Prague for a long time, for I think around about 12 years, is that right?

"That's exactly right."

What do you do here?

"I teach at the pedagogical faculty of the Charles University. I teach in the English department culture studies, English literature and gender issues."

And so you're promoting in a way English literature here.

"Yes, but I do try also to promote Czech literature because one of my hobbies - an all-consuming hobby - is that I help to run the Poetry on the Metro scheme here, which is almost exclusively Czech poetry."

Tell us a little bit about that. It's a fascinating scheme. What you're trying to do basically is to get poetry into the metro, so that people who are travelling in the metro to work every day stand there or sit there and instead of looking just at advertisements they're looking at poetry, aren't they?

"Well, anyone who's travelled in London or Paris or many other cities will be familiar with the sort of project. I was running with a friend, Renata Bulvova, a literary club many years ago, and one thing which grew out of it was that we thought we would like to set up a scheme here. So, with the help of the public transport system - it's a fantastic metro system I must say - we managed to start a scheme here, and we tried to have a mix of classic Czech poets as well as young living poets. People are very interested in it. I actually met and talked with people, who run the London scheme, and I think they were quite surprised to hear how lively people are in commenting, in complaining and objecting sometimes to the poems, but I quite like the fact that people still react to them so."

Poetry is your great love, so who's your favourite Czech poet?

"I thought about it when I knew I was coming to talk about this, and it reminded me of maybe the first Czech literature I ever read, when I was a teenager. The poems of Miroslav Holub were published by Penguin Modern European Poets. It was quite an interesting series in the 60s. I was very much affected by his poems, which are very strong, uncompromising. And they spoke of a whole world of experience, which was completely new and moving and touching to me."

Ode to joy

You only love

when you love in vain.

Try another radio probe

when ten have failed,

take two hundred rabbits

when a hundred have died:

only this is science.

You ask the secret.

It has just one name:


In the end

a dog carries in his jaws

his image in the water,

people rivet the new moon,I love you.

Like caryatids

our lifted arms

hold up time's granite load

and defeated

we shall always win.

Miroslav Holub, who died a few years ago, is very interesting in that he crossed the divide between poetry and science. He was also a scientist.

"Exactly, and I think this is reflected in the scientific precision of his poetry. It sounds rather clichéd to say it. He's probably one of the most translated of the Czech poets, but I don't think it's a bad thing that's so, because I think he's a great poet."

Let's go over to prose. What contemporary Czech prose particularly appeals to you?

"Again, pretty much a Czech classic, but maybe one not so known to people outside of the country, though his works are available in English translation. He's Bohumil Hrabal. He writes books of such intricate tenderness and cleverness and humanity and humour. It's very hard to describe the plots as such of his books, because really it's more like a jazz riff on life. The most famous of his books is, I think, "I Served the King of England", but my personal favourite is a book called "Too Loud a Solitude", which is the story of a man who has been a paper baler for 35 years, and he manages to save certain books of philosophy and literature from destruction, much, in fact, as Hrabal did, because most of his books have some kind of autobiographical connection. Here he's describing the mice, who inhabit his workplace."

"Today for the first time I noticed I'd stopped looking out for the mice, their nests, their families. When I throw in blind baby mice, the mother jumps in after them, sticks by them, and shares the fate of my classics and wastepaper. You wouldn't believe how many mice there are in a cellar like mine, two hundred, five hundred maybe, most of them friendly little creatures born half-blind, but there's one thing we have in common, namely, a vital need for literature with a marked preference for Goethe and Schiller in Morocco bindings. My cellar is constantly full of blinkings and gnawings: in their free time the mice are as playful as kittens, climbing up and down the sides of the press and pattering along the horizontal shaft. Then the green button sets the drum wall in motion and throws paper and mice into a high-stress situation, and the cheeping fades and the mice in other parts of the cellar suddenly turn serious and stand on their hind legs, prick up their ears, wondering what those new noises are, but since mice lose track of the moment as soon as the moment is over, they go right back to their games, to munching books, the older the paper the tastier it is, like a well-aged cheese or vintage wine. My life is so tightly bound up with these mice that even though I give all the paper a good evening hosing, which for the mice is like a daily dunking, they're always in a good mood and even look forward to their bath: they enjoy the aftermath, hours of licking and warming themselves in their paper retreats. Sometimes I lose control over my mice: I go out for a beer, lost in deep meditation, I dream as I wait at the bar, and when I open my coat to reach for my wallet, out jumps a mouse on the counter, or when I leave, out scurries a pair from a trouser leg, and the waitresses go wild, climb on chairs, stick their fingers in their ears, and scream bloody murder. And I just smile and wave a wet good-bye, full of plans for my next bale."

[translated by Michael Henry Heim]

"It's a long reading, because he writes such long sentences. I think his earliest story was in fact just one long, uninterrupted sentence. That's probably the shortest extract I could find. I think you can get a sense of the playfulness, and also there's always a seriousness, of course, a deep seriousness in his works, so I would highly recommend him to anybody who doesn't know him."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.